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Celibacy and the Catholic Priest
Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Some people may be surprised at the pressure and propaganda that have arisen in our day against the celibacy of priests in the Catholic Church. But it should not be surprising, as the history of the Church, from the beginning, amply testifies. It was, in fact, the unwillingness of so many priests to remain celibate that tilted the pressure in favor of Protestantism in the sixteenth century. There were many other factors doctrinal, theological, political that cost so many millions to Catholic unity. But in my estimation, the center of the issue was priestly celibacy.
The first thing the so-called reformers did on breaking with the Roman Catholic Church was to remove celibacy. It is also the same unwillingness in our day that is mainly responsible for the massive exodus of priests from their priestly ministry. Before and during the Second Vatican Council, there was extreme agitation, some in high quarters, to have celibacy for priests in the Western Church made, as they said, optional. But as has happened more than once in previous centuries, the Council held firm.
If anyone asks me, and I have been asked more than once, what positive good has come from the Second Council of the Vatican, I could give a dozen answers. But somewhere near the top is its unmistakable support for priestly celibacy. As the following statement of the Council makes clear:
Based on the mystery of Christ and its mission, celibacy, which at first was recommended to priests, was afterwards on the Latin Church imposed by law on all who were to be promoted to Holy Orders. This Sacred Council approves and confirms this legislation. (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 16).
When this decree was issued on December 7, 1965, there was much adverse criticism and a storm of protests which has not yet died down. Also, in the meantime, the Holy See has dispensed many priests who are, as we say, laicized, also from their celibacy, but with the absolute prohibition ever again to exercise their priesthood. So they had optional celibacy, but the option was either wife or the priesthood, meaning, always, that once a man is ordained, he is never unordained. In other words, the Church has once again stood strong on what is surely one of the glories of the Catholic priesthood and one of its principal means of drawing down Gods blessings on those ordained to the altar.
Why celibacy? This question has arisen many times, has been asked in a thousand ways. Why? Why should priests not marry, like say Protestant ministers do? Why should they remain celibate? Why make such a hard demand on weak human nature, that we also know is not infrequently unequal to the obligation? If we would begin to find a reason, we must start with the person of Christ.
When the Son of God came into the world, He surrounded His Incarnation with the aura of chastity. His mother, He made sure, would miraculously conceive Him without carnal intercourse. She would be a virgin before birth, in birth and after birth, as the Church solemnly teaches. Christ was in the words of the liturgy, flos matrius virginis (the flower of a virgin mother). Indeed, He made sure he was brought up in the virginal family of Mary and Joseph. Christ, further, all through His stay on earth, stayed a virgin. He never married.
During His public life, He showed special love for pure souls, such as the two Johns, the Baptist and the Evangelist. Christ could not have spoken more laudably about anyone than He did about John the Baptist, who, Christian revelation in her Tradition tells us, was a virgin. And the Evangelist, as he modestly admits without identifying himself by name, was the one whom Jesus specially loved.
The great apostle St. Paul, faithful interpreter of the New Law and of the mind of Christ, preached the inestimable value of virginity. In view of the more fervent service of God, and gave the reason when he said, An unmarried man can devote himself to the Lords affairs. All he need worry about is pleasing the Lord (1 Cor 7:32).
All of this clear revelation of the New Testament had almost inevitable consequences. The priests of the New Covenant felt the heavenly affection of this virtue. They sought to be of the number of those to whom in Christs prediction, it is given to take this Word (cf. Matt 19:12). They felt if anyone has the grace as Christ said some would have the grace to remain celibate, surely it ought to be the priests. And from the very beginning, the first century, they spontaneously bound themselves to celibate observance.
This, I think, bears more emphasis than we normally give it. There is so much talk these days about imposition, about constraint, about placing heavy, inhuman obligations. The facts of the case are just the opposite. Priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church began as a voluntary, spontaneous desire on the part of the Churchs priests to follow in the footsteps of Christ. So it came about that the practice in the Latin Church. We see the sanction of ecclesiastical law. I repeat, law followed spontaneous choice, not the other way around. There first were celibate priests, and then wisely and understandably, the Church made laws building on what then had already become part of the Churchs Tradition.
Already in 305 A.D. (thats very early), before the Churchs liberation under Constantine, the Council of Elvira in Spain passed the following decree: That bishops, priests and deacons, and in general all the clergy, who are specially employed in the service of the altar, abstain from conjugal intercourse. Let those who persist be degraded from the ranks of the clergy (Can. 33). And by the end of the fourth century, the Second Council of Carthage in Africa declared, What the apostles taught in the early Church preserved, let us too observe. Celibacy, I insist, is not a post factum afterthought of the Church. It is an anti factum, reality, practiced by the Church and wanted by those who wanted to be Christs priests.
So the tradition went on. And in the Middle Ages, when the Church in Europe was rocked to her foundations over this law of celibacy, one pontiff after another stood his ground until this law was restore to its original integrity. Behind the Churchs legislation is therefore first of all the revealed fact that the Son of God was a virgin. If a priest is another Christ, it is to be like Christ. It is to portray and preach Christ to the people. Is it not proper that, like his Master, he too should not marry? There is no arguing this point with a person who lacks the faith. Ive tried; its useless. They dont know what youre talking about. As there is also no need to press the argument with one who believes. Why, of course! If Christ is God, and Christ chose virginity, and I want to be like Him, well, I want to be like Him!
The imitation of Christ is the first and fundamental reason for priestly celibacy. A reason, however, that is not based on natural reason, or lest still, reasons. You dont argue yourself into celibacy. It is based on the deeper wisdom of faith. Experience and history, besides the fact of revelation, show that celibacy gives the priest extraordinary freedom, as St. Paul says, freedom of the worries and cares that necessarily go along with marriage and rearing a family.
There is first of all, freedom of time to give to the people under his sacerdotal care. I just cant imagine living in wedlock and living also as I do, a 17-18 hour working day. There is freedom of mobility, to go wherever there is hope of Gods greater glory and the good of souls. In my many travels, I engage in many conversations with men, salesmen, executives, businessmen, with whom I talk about themselves and embarrassingly, their families. All I know is that their families suffer. It is impossible to move around as much as a priest who is really zealous for souls should move about and at the same time do justice to his wife and children. As one medical executive told me, Ill never forget, on the flight from Ottawa to Chicago, he told me about his many enterprises, where he goes, all over Canada and the United States. By the way, doctor, I said, how about your family? Oh, he said, Ive got it figured out. I calculate they have a right, I quote, to twenty minutes of my time per day. A priest, therefore, has freedom of mobility.
He has freedom of interest to devote himself exclusively to his priestly ministry and not be bound, as he would be in marriage, to preoccupations with so many things that would, therefore, divide his interests between the priesthood and his duties as husband and father of a natural family.
My work over the years has brought me into frequent contact and intimate relationships with Protestant ministers. I cannot tell you, and I quote literally, how many have told me, John, I envy your celibate life. I love my wife and my children, but I often find it literally impossible to be what my people want me to be and my family, to give them the time and attention they deserve.
But we are not finished yet. It would be strange if it were possible that God would not correspondingly bless the celibacy of His priests by showering them with an abundance of His graces for the sacrifices that, as every priest knows, celibacy costs. What Pope Pius XII wrote to priests on this aspect of their celibate life deserves to be remembered whenever anyone tries to talk down the sublimity of this Christ-like institution. By His law of celibacy, says the Pope, the priest so far from losing the gift and duties of fatherhood, rather increases them immeasurably. For although he does not beget progeny for this passing life on earth, he begets children for that life which is heavenly and eternal. Unquote the Sovereign Pontiff.
Every man, I speak as one, wants to be a father. The option he has is what kind of fatherhood he will experience. This is the capstone, as only priests who are faithful to their celibacy know, their celibacy is a true fatherhood as that of a woman dedicated to a life in a religious community is a genuine motherhood. And let no one steal that mystery from our faith. The priest is emphatically not a pious bachelor. He is wedded to the Saviors work in this world. And celibacy is the obvious, and if only people would believe it, congenial, happy, enjoyable expression of the priests relationship to God and man.
All of this, however, requires deep faith in the priests. It requires discipline of his senses, especially his eyes and his sense of touch. He must be a disciplined man. No one else can remain celibate. It requires much prayer and an easy communion with God. Above all, it requires a great love of Jesus Christ. And of course, a great deal of grace from the Savior who called him and ordained him to the priesthood.
It is especially on this level on the amount of grace that priests need to remain celibate that I wish to close this conference. That is why the Catholic faithful who want to see their priests, oh, how they want to see their priests faithful to their celibacy, how it saddens them beyond description to see a priest unfaithful to his commitment. But as frightening as the statement may sound, I think its true. People get the kind of priests they deserve. Priests are not alone. They are parts of the mystical body of Christ. They need the other members of this body to help them be what Christ wants them to be. And the help they especially need from the people whom they are meant to serve is these peoples sacrificial prayer. Prayer joined to sacrifice.
Without grace, celibacy is unthinkable. And as one who has spent most of his priestly life dealing with priests, without grace, celibacy is unlivable. And the prayers of the priest for himself are not enough. Do you hear it? They are not enough. Either he gets the support of the faithful or he will not be able to remain faithful. But given their assistance, he will obtain, as God wants him to obtain, the graces that he needs to be what the priest professes to be a mediator of the Savior to a sinful, sex-ridden world, an ambassador of Christ, the virginal Son of the Virgin Mary.
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